For the third straight year, the Houston Texans are welcoming the Tennessee Titans to NRG Stadium to round out the regular season. But for the first time in those three years, Houston doesn't have to face Derrick Henry. No, that will be the next team's problem, as Henry (foot) was designated to return from injured reserve earlier this week, primed for a playoff return.
The Texans (4-12) don't have to worry about the playoffs, but the Titans (12-4) do. They've already secured their second straight AFC South title after destroying the Dolphins last week, but now they're thinking bigger. They're thinking home-field advantage. They're thinking first-round bye. The Titans are thinking one thing — securing the No. 1 seed.
Tennessee (12-4) at Houston (4-12)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -10
1. Titans still have something to play for
Tennessee still has plenty to play for after locking up their second straight AFC South title. The Titans are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but that spot is far from solidified. In order to keep the conference's top spot going into the postseason, the answer is simple — beat the Houston Texans.
Well, simple in theory anyway. You have to remember these are the Titans we're talking about here. The same Titans team that is notorious for playing down to their competition, as evidenced by their sloppy losses to the lowly Jets, Texans, and, I'd argue, the Steelers, earlier this season.
Against the Jets, the Titans only converted on five of their 19 third-down attempts as the offensive line allowed Ryan Tannehill to get sacked seven times. In the home loss to Houston, they converted just six of their 15 third-down chances and turned the ball over five times. Against Pittsburgh, Tannehill was sacked four more times to go with four team turnovers as well. Again, I say, sloppy.
The Titans have been playing cleaner football as of late. They've not turned the ball over in three of their last four games, all three of which were wins, and have been converting their third downs at a 47-percent clip the last few weeks, one of the highest marks in the NFL.
With a win against Houston on Sunday, the Titans would take the AFC's top seed as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the conference's only first-round bye. Should Tennessee fall to the Texans, Kansas City, Cincinnati and New England would all have a shot at claiming the No. 1 seed. The Titans can still get the No. 1 seed with a loss, but it would require help (mainly some combination of losses by those three teams, or a tie in certain scenarios).
But the Titans can just make it simple on themselves. Play good, clean football on Sunday against Houston and claim the No. 1 seed the old-fashioned way — with a W.
2. Davis Mills
Ever heard of him? Unless you're a Texans fan, you probably haven't. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with Mr. Mills because he just might be the Texans' quarterback of the future. Maybe. If not, he'll very likely be taking snaps in another NFL city near you next season.
The Titans don't know much about Mills either. He didn't play against Tennessee in Houston's Week 11 road win, Tyrod Taylor did. But since then, Mills was named the starter for the remainder of the season, and he's been playing like he wants to stay their starter for the foreseeable future.
A quick look at the season numbers for the rookie from Stanford, taken in the third round (67th overall) — 12 appearances (10 starts), 66 percent completion rate, 2,363 yards, 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 85.2 passer rating — and they're nothing much to look at. In fact, those stats rival Tannehill's season box score. But if you peek at what Mills has done over the last month, he at least shows promise.
In his last four starts, he's completing 68 percent of his throws with six touchdowns, only two picks, and a lofty 96.2 rating. He's getting the ball out quickly, in about 2.2 seconds per attempt, and he's throwing the eighth-most accurate deep ball (42 percent) in the league, according to playerprofiler.com. And for whatever reason, Mills has been lights out inside NRG Stadium. In six home starts, he's thrown nine touchdowns with only one interception and a wonderful 106.2 rating.
3. Titans' tight ends
Last week, I was taken aback when I heard the play-by-play broadcaster say that Anthony Firkser's, 15-yard touchdown catch was his first of the 2021 season. I thought, "Surely that can't be right." In the year 2022 (then 2021), where our tight end overlords rule the NFL passing attack, how is it that the Titans' starting tight end only has one touchdown reception? I guess, for a moment, I forgot Jonnu Smith isn't in Nashville anymore.
The Titans are different from most modern NFL offenses. Their offense is built on a power-running game we millennials were familiar with in our youth. Their tight ends are expected to block first and catch passes second. Tennessee's top two tight ends, Firkser and Geoff Swaim, are both tied for 26th at the position with 30 receptions each, and the Titans' tight end group is last in yards per catch (8.4). That's a far, far fall from Baltimore's Mark Andrews' 99 catches or Travis Kelce's 88 for Kansas City.
But it's also a little bit surprising given the fact that the Titans rely so heavily on play-action and short passes that they don't lean more heavily on their tight ends. And given the health uncertainty at the wide receiver position this year for Tennessee, that question is even more perplexing.
I would love to see Tannehill target his tight ends more often in the red zone. Of the seven combined touchdown catches for Tennessee's tight ends this year, all have come inside the red zone. In fact, all of them have come within 15 yards of the end zone, but he still isn't targeting them enough. Of Swaim's five red zone catches, three of them have been scores, but he's only been targeted eight times. Firkser only has five red zone targets all season long. No. 3 tight end MyCole Pruitt (who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last Sunday) has three scores, all coming in the red zone, but only six targets inside the scoring area.
The Titans certainly miss Smith's presence and production, but they aren't lacking options at tight end, even if Pruitt is no longer one of them. Firkser and Swaim are capable of making a difference for an offense that could use a jolt going into the playoffs.
There is absolutely no reason the Titans should lose this game. They are significantly better in all three phases compared to the Texans. Yes, this is the same Tennessee team that lost to Houston, at home, earlier this season. But this time it's different. Keep it simple, play smart, get to the quarterback, don't turn the ball over. Everything else is cream cheese. Enjoy your No. 1 seed.
Prediction: Titans 26, Texans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.